As you may have heard, the Graduate Employees Organization (GEO) at the University of Michigan has voted to strike. GEO is the labor union representing graduate student instructors and graduate student staff assistants. We understand you may be concerned about the effect of our strike on your child’s college experience. To help assuage your concerns, we wanted to reach out and explain the reasoning behind the work stoppage.
We are striking because the University of Michigan’s plan to protect its students is insufficient. Our undergraduate students have been back on campus for eight days, and our University Quarantine and Isolation Housing is at least 10.5% full. The University has tested a mere 1,609 students in the last 2 weeks, barely more than 5% of the total undergraduate population. President Schlissel has consistently insisted that the University of Michigan is somehow different from other universities of similar size, a claim based in misplaced optimism and not in fact.
The university administration will tell you it has recently launched a surveillance testing program and ramped up its testing. This plan is intended to provide you with a false sense of security. Since this program is opt-in, any measure of COVID-19 it creates will understate the true risk in our community. This is because students who take the risk less seriously — and therefore have greater risk for COVID-19 — are also less likely to sign up for this surveillance testing. As a consequence, a more responsible student could contract this life-threatening illness from an asymptomatic classmate who has not signed up for surveillance testing and is unaware of their infection. This situation is dire and calls for meaningful action.
As your children’s teachers, we are committed to their well-being as well as our own. We cannot stand idly by while our university administration places students in danger and suppresses voices of dissent among the faculty. With our strike, we seek to embody the true Wolverine Culture of Care, by fighting for safety for all community members. Our safe workplace is your child’s safe classroom.
We understand you may be frustrated at the disruption to your child’s classes. We have voted to strike because it is the lesser of two disruptions to our students’ education. If the university continues to risk our health, we will contract COVID-19 and be unable to teach — and unfortunately, if your children contract COVID-19, they will certainly not be able to complete the semester. The university’s inadequate response to this pandemic is the true source of disruption to undergraduate education at the University of Michigan, and we hope you will join us in directing your justified frustration toward university administration.
Many of our demands will directly improve the quality of your children’s instruction. The university has placed the burden of opting out of in-person work on graduate student instructors, creating a climate in which many of us are caught between a rock and a hard place: afraid of suffering professional consequences if we opt out, and afraid of suffering health consequences if we don’t. Many of us also have enhanced caretaking responsibilities during this time, as many schools are closed and some family members may become sick. We are striking to ask the university to give us the tools to navigate these powerful and unusual stressors. Without these tools, our attention is split between managing our families’ health and educating your child. Additional support from the university will remove much of the cognitive burden of the former, so we can focus on the latter.
We have heard parent questions about why we are calling to reduce police presence on campus, particularly regarding U-M’s campus police force, DPSS. These demands are explicitly related to our concern for a healthy, safe and just campus for your children and all their fellow undergraduates, including and especially Black and brown students. The University has made this link explicit through their decisions to police and surveil our campus community in a perverse effort to enforce social distancing, through the “Michigan Ambassadors” program. This program will not keep your children safe from COVID-19; only the complete and transparent testing and safety procedures GEO is calling for will do that. And as this summer’s national uprising against racist police violence has underscored, police presence — whether employed by the university or by the city of Ann Arbor — directly threatens the physical and mental health of students of color. These are not abstract concerns here in Washtenaw County, as proven by the police murder of Aura Rosser and the police assault of Sha’Teina Grady El. Our concern for a campus that truly protects all undergraduate students, including your child, drives our demands related to policing on campus.
We hope you understand that we care as deeply for your children, their education, and their health as we do for our own. We strike in the hope that we can return the University of Michigan to prioritizing its students over its profits.
In addition, you may be interested in reading this testimonial from a parent in Vermont.